John DeMain “Launches” His 23rd Season with Madison Symphony

With an assist from NASA, the MSO’s first program is literally “out of this world”

From a personal standpoint, watching an HD NASA video of our solar system while hearing the Madison Symphony play Gustav Holst’s The Planets brought to mind the first line of Psalm 19 (so gloriously set by Haydn in The Creation), “The heavens are telling.”

But from the packed Overture Hall’s audience’s perspective, the MSO was telling them that the group and its leadership are continuing to explore innovative and stimulating ways to present classical music.

And to put my critic’s hat back on, the evening said loud and clear that DeMain and his refreshed ensemble were reiterating their intention to continue shining brightly in the realm of regional orchestras.

Of course after 22 seasons, DeMain has had some traditions develop out of winning formulas. The first is to open the season with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and on Friday night, the singing and the response seemed more robust than ever.

A tradition more salient to the actual programming is that the orchestra itself, and an individual member or two, are featured on the opening weekend, instead of the marquee name soloist. One welcomed one of the great guilty pleasures of the repertoire for starters, the “Romanian Rhapsody No. 1” of Enescu. It was a little surprising to learn that this was the MSO’s first reading of the work in its 91 seasons. A rowdily rhapsodic time was had by all, and the very first notes came from one of the group’s newest members, principal clarinetist J.J. Koh. When the MSO was graced with his predecessor, Joseph Morris, three seasons ago, it was all but assumed it was a matter of time before Morris took the next step in his career. What Koh revealed throughout the evening in his spotlight moments, is that he might be another relatively short-timer. But as with Morris, the circumstances re-emphasize the enviable problem of being an ensemble strong enough to attract top young talent such as the formerly Los Angeles-based Morris and the Chicago-based Koh.

The biggest individual spotlight fell upon concertmaster Naha Greenholtz, as soloist in the “Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra,” based on music from The Red Violin, by John Corigliano. As J. Michael Allsen’s ever-clear program notes pointed out, the circumstances of the film’s production resulted in the Chaconne emerging fully developed first, instead of later adapted from the actual film score. It was not a surprise to see that again this was the first hearing of the piece by the MSO—nor any news that DeMain continues to look for and program late 20th and early 21st-century music that is well worth hearing. Greenholtz ‘s playing was assured and glittery as required. The work stands on its own substantial merits: It does not necessarily recall any vivid moments from the film (admittedly it has been a number of years since this auditor has seen it), but develops the old Baroque form with muscular exchanges with a large orchestra, before a haunting solo and quieter section dominate the final pages.

But the big draw—which has led to the kind of significant single-ticket sales usually reserved for the Christmas concert—was Holst’s The Planets, performed with an HD video which the Houston Symphony commissioned from NASA in 2010. It is probably fortuitous that the work (music and video) opens with “Mars, The Bringer of War,” since there is so much Rover and probe footage at NASA’s disposal, and musically it is the most overtly dramatic section of the suite.

In fact, the biggest “problem” of the night may have been that the spectacular video segments might distract from just how well the MSO was playing.

But the images were riveting, with the large screen frequently grouping multiple views at once. DeMain had no trouble unleashing the crowded stage (the work calls for extras of all the usual winds, plus contrabassoon, two harps, a ton of percussion, and women’s chorus in the final movement), but also nailed compelling tempos time and again. The central section of “Mars” is often taken too slow; DeMain kept it flowing. “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” can suffer from herky-jerky lack of transitions from its rollicking first theme to the famous “patriotic” tune that contrasts with it. But as is so often the case, it was the less splashy stretches that need to be highlighted, among them the sturdy and inexorable tread of “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age,” and the ephemeral last movement, “Neptune, the Mystic.” (The photo above—which does scant justice to the breadth and beauty of the video—is of Saturn and its rings, courtesy of Duncan Copp/NASA-JPL).

And so the season is off and running; let’s hope that many of the newcomers in the hall Friday night come back for a second helping. In the meantime, you might be able to find a ticket for Saturday at 8 or Sunday at 2:30.

 

 

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